Saturday, November 13, 2021

Weekend Post

 

I screened DR. STRANGELOVE when I taught a comedy class at USC.  It’s maybe the greatest black comedy ever. If you haven’t seen it, treat yourself. If you have seen it, treat yourself again.

The movie also serves as a great lesson in comedy.  

Things are funnier if you play them straight.

What do I mean by that?

Nobody in this film knew they were in a comedy. The subject matter was somewhat dramatic – the possible destruction of the entire planet, and yet you laughed at how absurd they acted. But they didn’t know they were acting absurd. They were dead serious in everything they said and did. When Peter Sellers as the president of the United States breaks up a tussle between a Russian ambassador and American general and says, “You can't fight in here.  This is the War Room!” there’s no trace of irony in his delivery. Were there, the joke wouldn’t have been funny.

Too often feature comedies and sitcoms these days are very self-conscious. Characters are trying to be funny or are aware they’re being funny. Lines are delivered with irony; with a wink to the audience that they know they’re spoofing pop culture or the form or themselves. “Yeah, I know I’m in a stupid sitcom and you know I’m in a stupid sitcom, but let’s just goof on it and share the laugh together.”

My personal preference is for comedy that’s underplayed rather than overplayed. I’m smart enough. You don’t have to put someone in a chicken suit for me to know I’m watching a comedy. Actors don’t have to be loud or frantic or mocking an entertainment genre for me to laugh.

Ground your comedy in reality. Create interesting characters. Give them strong attitudes. Not just make them glib or hip. Put them in real crisis situations and see how they react. The point is for you the audience to find their behavior funny, not them.

37 comments :

Tom said...

Peter Bull (the actor who played Russian Ambassador Sadesky) knew he was in a comedy. In one of the shots, during Strangelove's meltdown near the end, you can see him laughing. A great film and a great recommendation.

N. Zakharenko said...

Precisely the reason why sitcoms and comedy movies were always best cast with actors/actresses rather than "standup" comedians.

The handful that did succeed e.g. Robin Williams, Tim Allen and Whoopie Goldberg demonstrated they had an acting talent in them.

If I was casting, I'd know which direction to hedge my bets.

Sung said...

I was just talking about this movie with professors from my alma mater last week. I was taking a culture of the 1960s class as a junior many years ago and the professor assigned this as part of the course. Me and a friend went, knowing nothing about the movie outside of it being made by the same guy who made 2001, and that it was in black and white.

The entire theater laughed throughout the film, and so did we. I still remember the scene where that crazy soldier keeps talking about fluids, who breaks open the soda machine and says in the most serious manner, something to the effect of having to answer to the Coca Cola Corporation... And then having a coke spray right onto his face! At least that's how I remember it. God, what an amazing, amazing film.

James Van Hise said...

I have to think that when Slim Pickens rode an atomic bomb while acting like he was on a bucking bronco, he knew that it was a joke. And he really looked like he was having fun.

Markus said...

It all hinges on whether or not the actors can in fact deliver a straight performance. ZAZ movies all rely on regular actors (i.e. not comedians) delivering straight lines knowing fully well they're in a comedy.

Of course there are other ways of making a straight performance in absurd settings funny among funny actors, such as in Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie" where the sole spoken word in the entire film is delivered by the mime(!) Marcel Marceau. So, I guess it really all hinges on script and director?

Chris Gumprich said...

This is exactly what makes Leslie Nielsen so hilarious in POLICE SQUAD!/NAKED GUN.

Fed by the muse said...

Along those lines, Ken I've always resented when sitcoms "dumb down" recurring characters to the point where they have become almost annoying presences, two examples coming to mind being Mr. Kimball on "Green Acres" and Howard Borden on "The Bob Newhart Show," both characters more or less played straight early on (and were plenty funny, engaging). I remember you writing that you were a fan of 'Get Smart" in its early seasons (when Buck Henry, as series story editor, shaped a lot of those scripts). Watching a marathon of the series recently I, too, found the first two seasons of "Get Smart" far funnier than most of the eps that followed, the series devolving from a hybrid adventure-comedy into a standard sitcom (though even seasons 4-5 each contain some stand out episodes). But I imagine when it was first broadcast in 1965 it was very fresh and admired.

Gary said...

Dr. Strangelove is one of those movies I can't turn off, if I stumble onto it while channel surfing. The scariest thing is how prophetic the character of General Buck Turgidson was, and how well he would fit into today's political climate.

Pat Reeder said...

This is why I hated the female "Ghostbusters" remake. It wasn't because they were women. In fact, Kate McKinnon and Melissa McCarthy were the only things I liked about it. It was mostly because the script and direction (by men, I believe) were flailing so hard to be "FUNNY!" The male characters couldn't be a little sexist, they had to be cartoons out of a 1977 issue of "MS." A dumb character couldn't be just a little dim, he had to be so dense that he didn't know how a phone works. Slapstick didn't mean a little slime in the face, it was someone being bounced off of walls in a way that would shatter the bones of anyone who wasn't an animated cartoon.

The original "Ghostbusters" worked for the same reason "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" worked: the humor was integrated into what was essentially a horror movie, and the horror elements were played straight.

Mark said...

George C. Scott was said to have hated his own performance. He tried to underplay it and Kubrick kept urging him to go more and more broad, take after take. The broadest takes were the ones used.

I never knew there were men reading Ms. magazine in the 70s.

maxdebryn said...

FAIL-SAFE has pretty much the same premise as STRANGELOVE, as I recall.

Daniel said...

Do you think that the characters in "Frasier" knew that they were funny? They often made objectively witty remarks that someone of their intelligence would recognize as witty or funny. But did the writers feel that the characters were that self-aware in-story?

Mike said...

"You don’t have to put someone in a chicken suit for me to know I’m watching a comedy."
That's cultural appropriation. There are plenty of chicken actors that could play that part. One in particular has been struggling to find work since you had it wear blackface for thanksgiving back in the day. It was ostrichized by the industry.
Thanksgiving is near again. Do the right thing. It would appreciate the royalties.

Michael said...

The actors in Strangelove knew it was a comedy but a very black comedy, of course. The point is that they played it right. Chris referred to Leslie Nielsen, and he was great when he was playing it straight but delivering funny lines--in some roles, he was making too many faces. Think of the Airplane movies. The funniest people were the ones who traditionally didn't do comedy--Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and of course Nielsen. And I'll repeat: Nielsen showed his comedy chops on an early MASH episode, so I wasn't surprised by him at all.

Since they have come up here recently, remember that Laurel and Hardy did physical humor, but they were very low-key, generally. That's what made it even better.

Peter Sellers was also supposed to play the Slim Pickens character, but broke his leg and couldn't. THAT would have been something, though Pickens was great.

VincentS said...

My second favorite Stanley Kubrick film (a whisker behind A CLOCKWORK ORANGE). When they were making AIRPLANE ZAZ told the actors, "Play it like you don't know you're in a comedy."

scottmc said...

I seemed to recall that Dr.Strangelove was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, but lost. Upon checking, I see that it lost to film adaptation of the play Beckett. Coincidently, Alun Owen's screenplay for A Hard Day's Night was nominated the same year (in the Original Screenplay category) and lost to Father Goose.

DBenson said...

Re "Frasier" wit: Yes, Frasier and Niles would make clever quips. But it was often in the context of them being showoffs and frequently too clever for their own good. There was a feeling they couldn't always turn it off and speak in a more appropriate tone, leaving them exposed to reactions by other characters.

Here and there we have Groucho and Bugs Bunny types who spout off for their own amusement, secure in the knowledge the Margaret Dumonts and Yosemite Sams of the world won't get it. We sort of identify, often harboring similarly disrespectful thoughts but lacking the moxie and wit to verbalize.

There are the Don Rickleses and Basil Fawltys who are perpetually venting; we laugh more at their apoplexy and self-pity than the content of their rants. An ingratiating performer speaking the same lines to an audience would like as not be repellent.

There's the delicate-to-write character who thinks he's funny, but is not funny to the characters around him (yet amuses the audience).

What kills a show for me is when somebody or something that had been accepted as normal in the show's universe is suddenly decreed to be funny, or scary, or brilliant. Too many times, Jerry Lewis's idiot character is abruptly acclaimed a brilliant comic after a movie's characters view the same behavior as mere incompetence. The Munsters were annoyingly inconsistent on whether or not Herman's monster presence instantly terrified strangers. The Addams Family had Soviet agents taking the man-eating plants, Thing, and other surreal bits in a very literal manner. The Office was always a balancing act, never quite admitting everything that went with a constant documentary crew until near the end of the series -- and suddenly we not only see the boom mike operator, but he's a presence in the story.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Thanks for today's subject. I have "Strangelove" on DVD. I think I'll watch it tonight.

MAXDEBRYN mentioned "Fail Safe." I have always wanted to do the double feature, "Fail Safe" and "Dr. Strangelove." But I haven't been able to find "F.S." on DVD or Blu-ray.

M.B.

Elf said...

@Daniel, I think a big part of the charm of Frazier is that the brothers were mostly oblivious to how others saw them, and that's why Roz's and Martin's put-downs were so effective.

Elf said...

Leslie Nielsen was great until he started trying to be funny, right about the second Naked Gun movie. He started making faces for the camera and telegraphing everything. That was his downfall.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Ken, you've described a series that you and most people much smarter than I put on the list of all-time worst sitcoms in history: “The Flying Nun.” I do not intend to change anyone's mind or campaign for retroactive Emmy Awards, just make the case. It’s risky, but here I go.

The title is what really hurt it. “The Flying Nun” just invites criticism and cheap shots. So does “My Mother the Car,” but that was a very broad comedy and it was played very silly (even the music was silly from beginning to end). If they just called this series "Sister Bertrille," it might have avoided being the punchline of every TV show seven days a week from morning to night, with young Sally Field at the center of the punchlines, to the point being humiliated by the Emmys making her "fly" into an award broadcast. Her problems with the role have been well documented, but what is not often recognized is what she has also noted about her relationship with the seasoned actors on the show, particularly the great Madeleine Sherwood, who encouraged her to study acting seriously. The Flying Nun forced her to play someone she was not, to work at something arduous--in effect, it disciplined her in a way that Gidget never could, and had it not happened she might have been like dozens of pert ingenues of the sixties who you can spot in James Darren movies on TCM.

Back to the show. With few exceptions (mostly a couple of mugging guest stars), the cast played the outlandish premise completely as if it was real. Because they were nuns, it was not like Gilligan, the later seasons of Bewitched of Jeannie, in which pandemonium was a regular occurrence. The supporting cast -- people you usually saw in hour dramas like Quinn Martin shows -- played it totally as if it were serious for the most part. Her flying was a "gift" that had to be dealt with and sometimes used to help others (not a popular sitcom plotline nowadays).

There was no Mrs. Kravitz or Doctor Bellows. They often told people she could fly and asked politely if the "gift" would not be shared too far. The real fantasy was not that she could fly, but that these people did not exploit her and tell the world. Occasionally they did have to hide the flying, but often it was right in the open--you could see her up there.

The series was pretty diverse considering it was in primetime from 1967 to 1970 and pre-Norman Lear. It was not immune to political incorrectness (especially in the romantic escapades of Carlos, though he’s constantly thwarted by the presence of nuns), but it took place in Puerto Rico and dealt with orphans and the poor. It was sponsored by Colgate-Palmolive and Oscar Mayer but unlike other series they sponsored at the time, no one lived in nice suburban homes (even as nice as the Bunker house) or stylish city apartments. To be sure, the show had the slick sheen of ‘60s Screen Gems productions, but not nearly the typical sparkle.

The convent welcomed those of other faiths with warmth and respect, not often enough, but more than many shows in ‘60s prime time. This was before we had cable channels that separated us by all the things that are not supposed to have separated us. But then, that sells more products, because specific targeting by dividing the public is the way to market more effectively, isn’t it? And look at what has done and is still doing.

So sure, there were better superior to The Flying Nun. It didn't try to be anything more than it was. But there were far, far worse sitcoms before and especially since. As Lou Grant once said, “It didn’t stink.”

RobW said...

True, Leslie Nielsen was hilarious in Police Squad/ Naked Gun! and Airplane but then slowly started to mug and try to 'play funny" in later films as if he learned nothing from the previous movies that made him successful.

Fred said...


Documentary excepts — offering another explanation as to
why Sellers didn’t play Kong, PLUS Sellers demonstrating
on Steve Allen show how Strangelove’s voice came from Weegee
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yWn_8SUWtg

https://slate.com/culture/2018/06/the-photographer-weegee-captured-the-pie-fight-scene-on-the-set-of-dr-strangelove.html

https://dangerousminds.net/comments/weegees_photos_from_the_set_of_dr._strangelove

Sellers — then others — impersonate Michael Caine
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qIy1DmGLWI

Jeff said...

To the list of great black comedies I would add Armando Iannucci's DEATH OF STALIN, which is all the more unnerving because a lot of it is true.

maxdebryn said...

Mike Bloodworth - You can get the FAIL SAFE DVD on Amazon.

Dave said...

One of my favourite comedies in the last 10 years was The Brink. The situation(s) was and were dire but I found it very funny. Not normally a Jack Black fan but in this he was okay. I think it really works along the parameters you mention here. Unfortunately it only got one season.

David Thiel said...

I have never understood the praise for “Dr. Strangelove.” I watched it back in January—for the first time in about 40 years—to see if I would appreciate it more than I did as a confused teen. And I still didn’t get it. There were a handful of mildly amusing moments—the oft-cited “war room” line—but I didn’t laugh once. It’s not just that the cast is largely playing it straight (with the exception of Sellers’ mugging in the title role), but that the movie itself is deadly serious most of the time, barely distinguishable from “Fail Safe” and other Cold War dramas.

Gary Conrad said...

Another example of a movie that's funny by being played straight: Tootsie. Many laugh out loud scenes but Sydney Pollack was quoted as saying that during filming they never laughed.

Mike Doran said...

Something I've never quite gotten about Dr. Strangelove (Friday Question, if you will):You carefully avoided mentioning the character names, such as:
Gen. Jack D. Ripper
Gen. Buck Turgidson
Maj. "King" Kong
Col. "Bat" Guano
President Merkin Muffley
Soviet Ambassador DeSadesky
... and a host of others ...
One writer called these "Dogpatch names" - and he was being generous.

So how (if I may ask) are these not blatant signals to a scoffing audience?

Dr. Strangelove was always aimed at a niche audience: newly-emergent lefty "sophisticates" who were looking to mock everything.

The story of the Dr. Strangelove/Fail-Safe "war" is well-documented in many places.
Time has not been kind to Strangelove: the sledgehammer "satire" is obvious to the point of oppressiveness from the moment you learn the character names.
George C. Scott was right - the mugging he does all the way through this would have embarrassed Jim Varney.
This isn't the time to talk about how Fail-Safe was always the better film, so we can defer that to another time.
I'm out of gas just now (early Sunday morning); maybe back later ...

Michael said...

As for George C. Scott mugging ....

The scene where his girlfriend calls him in the war room, and then he hangs up and sits and stares--my father did his bit after the Korean War and used to say that was the same look that every officer had. And I realized who else always had it: Joe Torre when he was a manager.

Mike Bloodworth said...

P.S. Once again here's another example of how the universe balances out things. Not long after I finished reading Saturday's blog "Mannequin 2" was on TV. A lot of subtly there.đŸ˜‰
M.B.

Chuck said...

Darn my newly-emerged, lefty "sophisticate" 10-year-old self for liking this movie when I first discovered it.

Brian Phillips said...

This is decidedly broader, but one of the rules still applies. This sketch proved to be enormously popular. Morecambe and Wise had Andrè Previn as a guest. They (Previn included) were concerned whether the audience would find him funny. Previn recalls them saying, "Everyone else can think this is funny, but we can't." If there were any knowing winks or fourth-wall breaking, it wouldn't be as good.

Previn said that he had already played all over the world, recorded albums, but for many years after, THIS SKETCH was what people most commented on, up to and included a note of appreciation from his milkman!

https://vimeo.com/479336770

Brian Phillips said...

To Greg Ehrbar: Thanks for the defense of "The Flying Nun". I have not seen much of it, but you've hit upon a trend: disliking something because it's fashionable to dislike it. "My Mother, the Car" has been used many times as a prime example of bad TV shows, but I would argue that many people who say that hadn't seen it. "The Lone Ranger" with Johnny Depp is no classic, but not the all-out disaster that it was made out to be.

For ludicrous premises of recent times, I like to point to "Outlaw"(2010) with Jimmy Smits. Here is what I wrote about it, in response to a post:
https://mippyvilletv.blogspot.com/2010/09/house-effect.html

Lew Irwin said...

And then there is "Ishtar," branded by several critics as a tragic disaster, one of the worst -- if not the worst -- film ever made. I thought it was hilarious. The real tragedy is that the rotten critical reaction cost Elaine May, who had a superb gift for spotlighting the absurd and lampooning it, her career.

ScarletNumber said...

A director who insisted his actors play a ridiculous script completely straight was Russ Meyer. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was a complete farce, yet the actors treatiedit seriously. The writer, of course, was Roger Ebert.

@RobW

I wouldn't blame Leslie himself as much as his later directors. ZAZ really insisted on using serious actors in Airplane! and told them to play it straight

Spike de Beauvoir said...

Also affected me but I was 14 and saw it at summer theater camp. I caught a spark when I noted that Terry Southern was screenwriter and I scoured the library for everything I could read by and about him (printouts from microfilm in those days, pretty racy, lucky the librarian let it pass). I didn't revisit the movie or Southern after that phase, but he had an interesting career especially as a script doctor often uncredited.